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Beijing Dispatch, Part 2: China Travel Tips

Beyond the red tape in Red China

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china women boyLast week, in Beijing Dispatch: Glimpses of the Real China, I offered my impressions of China as it is in 2008 -- or at least during the 2008 Olympic Games -- and noted the extremely rapid changes coursing through every part of life in the Red Giant. Tourism experts and Chinese officials expect travel to China to surge in the weeks and months after the Games; here are some tips and observations for getting by, and for getting beyond the Red Tape in Red China if you find yourself inclined to visit Beijing and beyond.

People and Communication
Even if you speak a little Chinese, the language barrier can be formidable; the Chinese language is fiercely distinct from Anglo or Romance languages, and the cultural differences naturally embedded in language only exacerbate the situation. If you have a little Chinese, and the other person has a little English, you'll get about as far as the limits each of you brings and not a whole lot further. I found, however, that there was no resistance to communication -- for comparison's sake, it's not like being in Paris where the locals don't even want to know you're there.

For instance, I bought the same snack two days running at a small store in town; the next time I walked by, the owner enthusiastically waved me over to show me that she had restocked the store with the same snack -- and she did so again every day of my stay. A friend staying in the same hotel purchased a bottle of beer from a neighboring store each evening, and got the same treatment -- big smiles and waves from the entire family of the store proprietor as he came up the street. "The people are friendly and helpful" is a cliche trotted out about too many locales, but wow, these folks were truly friendly and helpful.

(As an aside, the beer-drinking journalist bought a beer each day because, as he exclaimed, "Did you see the price of a bottle of beer at that store?!? Fifty cents for a giant beer. I just had to have a beer in the shower." The nice price I understand; the beer in the shower I'm not so sure....)

As you try to converse with people, particularly if someone is translating for you, note that in the Chinese language new words do not simply gain currency; instead, the Chinese tend to use longer phrases of existing words to describe new things. So e-mail, for example, might be "correspondence completed using a machine attached to the global network" -- you get the idea. This is in part why a simple question in English can often inspire a flurry of discussion in Chinese. I say "Can I check e-mail?" and the Chinese use 10 - 12 words to say the same thing. The phenomenon does make you wonder what everyone is talking so much about.

Chinese girlIn addition to linguistic challenges, there are other profound cultural and behavioral differences that you will want to anticipate. For example, the hierarchical structure of Chinese society revealed itself to me in several ways. While working at the rowing venue, the first answer to any requests for policy changes was "No, you cannot do this; we have rules." Exactly what those rules were was not always evident, and while the Chinese hosts were clearly accustomed to this response sufficing to end the discussion, the Western journalists, athletes and event folks were not.

Considerable persistence and patience were needed so that the request would grind its way up the chain of command and then back down to the front line folks. And if a new person had a different understanding the next day, the process had to start all over again.

Lodging, Phones and Internet Access
In most hotels, beds are on the small side. A single in the United States almost always offers a queen or even king bed; in my experience in China, most singles will have two twin beds, and smaller Eastern-sized beds at that. Otherwise, all of the lodging I encountered was very nice and entirely adequate, although the air conditioning systems were struggling to counter the overwhelming humidity and warm temperatures of Beijing in mid-August.

The armies of employees make for an interesting dynamic when you enter and exit your hotel. I was in a hotel that consisted of three distinct buildings, and the staff of each tinkered and waited patiently for work just off the lobbies. Rounds of "Ni hao" (hello) and "Bye-bye" were standard occurrences each time you walked to or from your room.

With respect to cell phones, it is probably your best option to rent a Chinese cell phone and purchase a plan during your stay. While the Beijing Olympic hosts were charging journalists $300 - $400 for a phone and calling plan for the two weeks of the Games, you could walk a half-block from the hotel and get the same coverage and phone in Shunyi for about $30. As a result, I would try to purchase this type of service from a local storefront, or if you purchase it from a tour operator or your hotel, at least know how much you are paying for the convenience.

My AT&T cell phone worked in China to call other Chinese cell phones, but I could not get it to work for international calls no matter how many tricks I tried. AT&T had told me that my phone would not work at all, so my feeling was that it was a good safeguard until I could obtain a local phone. Calls were a bit over $2 per minute, so not economical in the least, but clearly worth the investment in case of an emergency, or for a day or so until you can rent a phone locally.

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